Surviving the rigorous test left O’Donnell and the rest of the U.S. women’s field hockey team with a heightened sense of their abilities.
“We are a bunch of fighters,” O’Donnell, a former star at Maryland, said in a recent interview. “So far we’ve shown we can get through anything.”
More significant, it left them more closely knit than ever.
“You’re fighting through your hardest times, with your teammates helping you get there,” O’Donnell recounted. “The biggest lesson is: You’re not going to win a gold medal in a team sport by yourself.”
Olympic gold is a lofty ambition for a team that finished last among the eight that competed in Beijing in 2008. Since claiming bronze in Los Angles in 1984, the American women have failed to qualify for three Summer Games, in 1992, 2000 and 2004.
But since missing the cut herself in 2008 despite the prodigious talent she displayed as a teenage phenom, O’Donnell has made a habit of setting her goals high, proclaiming them to the world and pouring all she has into reaching them. And when women’s field hockey gets under way at the London Olympics, this 5-foot-2 center forward stands to have a huge impact.
“She loves the pressure; she wants the pressure,” said Maryland Coach Missy Meharg, whose Terps have won seven NCAA championships and five in the last seven years — two with O’Donnell. “She always says what she wants: ‘We’re going to be ACC champions! We’re going to be national champions! Come with me!’ ”
The U.S women’s field hockey team will arrive in London with new respect after stunning world No. 1 Argentina to win the Pan American Games last November, despite a lowly 13th seed. With it, they earned an automatic Olympic berth. And almost overnight, they went from being a wallflower at the high school dance to the most popular date.
“People actually want to play us now!” O’Donnell said. “They want to see the system we’re playing and how we beat Argentina. . . . They’re just shocked at what we’ve done. . . . It’s pretty nice to know you’re not just a nobody anymore.”
Next week, the U.S. women descend on College Park, joined by top college players and members of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, for the U.S. women’s national championship, June 1-8. They’ll be broken into eight regional teams and play five matches that U.S. Coach Lee Bodimeade, a member of Australia’s 1992 Olympic team that won silver in Barcelona, will use to select his Olympic roster for London.
O’Donnell, 23, among the most decorated players in U.S. field hockey history, is as close to a lock as there is.
Charged primarily with scoring and creating scoring opportunities for others, O’Donnell loves nothing more than stripping the ball from a defender who has stolen it from her.
Since failing to make the 2008 Olympic team (which she says was entirely her fault for playing too tentatively in the run-up), she has learned to forget mistakes — or “flush them,” in the mental image she conjures during matches — and roar back with twice the intensity. And she has learned that she plays best on instinct. No thinking, fretting or second-guessing.
“You want to be on the winning side, so stop worrying about it,” O’Donnell said. “You know the saying: ‘Worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair. It’s not going to get you anywhere.’ I realized I wanted to get out of the rocking chair.”
It’s that approach that O’Donnell consistently brought to practice and matches at Maryland, according to Meharg, who’ll provide field hockey commentary during NBC’s Olympic broadcasts this summer.
“She developed the mentality to train like an Olympian. We did a tremendous amount of winning at Maryland when Katie was on our team because of her personal perseverance. And she pushed me to be a better coach of future Olympians.”
O’Donnell, in turn, credits virtually everyone in Maryland’s athletic department — coaches, teammates, academic advisers, media relations staff — with her success.
“College literally has placed me in this seat right now,” O’Donnell said. “I’m not the most organized person, and there are people behind the scenes that teach you the things you need to get through college — the organization, the early preparation. And on the field, my coaches have spent so many hours that are unnecessary on their part, helping me grow as an athlete and as a great field hockey player. That has been remarkable to me — the fact that people are willing to spend hours after practice when they should be making dinner.”
That’s why O’Donnell makes a point to thank those who helped her in College Park whenever she gets the chance.
And at the Olympics, she predicts she’ll become indebted to another person: Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, an accomplished field hockey player whose passion for the sport has already raised its profile.
An official Olympic ambassador, the fashionable Duchess triggered a media frenzy when she visited Britain’s women’s field hockey team during a practice in March. She doffed her black pumps for sneakers, traded her smart blazer for a sweatshirt and, in coral skinny jeans, picked up a stick, lamented her loss of form since her days as captain of her high school team, and smacked a ball into the net.
“She is just an idol to a lot of people; therefore, people are going to take interest in what she likes,” O’Donnell said. “So if she likes field hockey, it’s going to be televised. It’s going to be a big deal because she likes it.
“I’ll thank her when I see her. With my gold medal!”